Books of the Year

I read 85 books in 2013. Here’s a quick list of all but the top ten, sorted somewhat. Afterward we’ll cover my ten best.

Special Harry Stephen Keeler Category for So-Bad-It’s-Good-ness

Finger! Finger! (Harry Stephen Keeler); Behind That Mask (Harry Stephen Keeler); The Sharkskin Book (Harry Stephen Keeler)

Irredeemably Bad

The Explorer (W. Somerset Maugham); The Natural (Bernard Malamud)

The worst book I read this year was The Natural, Bernard Malamud’s insulting train-wreck of a baseball novel. Paper-thin characters, tenuous mixture of real and surreal, a totally bogus moral dilemma, plot hinging on stupid and easily avoidable decisions, and misogyny in the disgusting treatment of the female characters. Plus, the book’s just not a good depiction of baseball. In my Goodreads review, I call The Natural “a steaming pile of horseshit.” I really hate that stupid book.

Disappointing but with Some Merit

Capital (John Lanchester); The Stillborn God (Mark Lilla); Without Feathers (Woody Allen); Dangerous Admissions (Jane O’Connor); The Merry Wives of Windsor (William Shakespeare)

Just Kind of Okay

Winning the War on War (Joshua Goldstein); Casino Royale (Ian Fleming); The Age of Persuasion (Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant); The Net Delusion (Evgeny Morozov); The End of Overeating (David Kessler); Moonraker (Ian Fleming); Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen); They Say/I Say (Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein); Taken at the Flood (Agatha Christie); From Russia With Love (Ian Fleming); Death Comes to Pemberley (P.D. James); Pulphead (John Jeremiah Sullivan); The House of Wisdom (Jonathan Lyons); Smarter Than You Think (Clive Thompson); The Dictator’s Learning Curve (William J. Dobson)

Three Ian Fleming novels make this category because Fleming is just too creepy towards women to rate higher, and because the movies are more fun.

Pretty Good Non-Fiction, if You’re Interested in the Subject

The Great Inversion (Alan Ehrenhalt); Experiencing Music (Vagn Holmboe); Guide to Outsmarting Wine (Mark Oldman); Three Felonies a Day (Harvey Silverglate); Veeck as in Wreck (Bill Veeck and Ed Linn); On Moral Fiction (John Gardner); The World Without Us (Alan Weisman); Love in the Time of Algorithms (Dan Slater); Death and Life of the Great American School (Diane Ravitch); Sayings of Epictetus; Enough (John C. Bogle); The Art Instinct (Denis Dutton); Consider the Fork (Bee Wilson); Reality Bites Back (Jennifer Pozner); Without Guilt and Justice (Walter Kaufmann); Quack this Way (Bryan A. Garner and David Foster Wallace); My Mother Was Nuts (Penny Marshall)

Pretty Good Novels

What in God’s Name (Simon Rich); The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (Hallgrimur Helgason); The Sign of Four (Arthur Conan Doyle); The Pale King (David Foster Wallace); The Rock Hole (Reavis Z. Wortham); Longbourn (Jo Baker); The Jabberwock Gambit (Patricia Ladd)

Really, Really Good Non-Fiction

Going Clear (Lawrence Wright); Bonk (Mary Roach); Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain); The Storytelling Animal (Jonathan Gottschall); Salt Sugar Fat (Michael Moss); Adulting (Kelly Williams Brown); My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor); I Feel Bad about My Neck (Nora Ephron); How to Create the Perfect Wife (Wendy Moore); Bossypants (Tina Fey); Out of My League (Dirk Hayhurst); Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Anya von Bremzen)

Really, Really Good Fiction

A Study in Scarlet (Arthur Conan Doyle); The Mystery of the Yellow Room (Gaston Leroux); Why Begins with W (anonymousish); The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle); Collected Stories (Nikolai Gogol); Swamplandia! (Karen Russell); Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll); The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas); My Antonia (Willa Cather); No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy); Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan); Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen); The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers); Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain)

The Top Ten

Here we go, folks! The countdown of an arbitrary round number of my favorite books of 2013!

10. The Rest is Noise (Alex Ross). How do you take a kind of dry-sounding historical subject that most people dislike, and turn it into a fascinating narrative? This is how. Alex Ross transforms a history of 20th-century classical music into a vivid story with wacky, fascinating characters, hilarious anecdotes, high emotional stakes, and some of the best, most imaginative descriptions of music that I’ve ever read. It’s incredible just for the feat of describing music in words so well.

9. Delusions of Gender (Cordelia Fine). Remember that stuff about men being from Mars and women from Venus? You probably knew that was crap. But what about that stuff proving men and women have brains that are “wired differently”? You may not have realized that’s crap, too. Scientist and writer Cordelia Fine is an entertainingly snarky guide to the world of gender difference, and the people hell-bent on exaggerating gender differences to keep women down. A fascinating work of persuasion and scientific argument that also happens to be a feminist weapon. Cool!

8. Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick). Hundreds of thickly-researched pages describing everyday life in North Korea, using intensive interviews with former North Korean residents, is nobody’s idea of a fun read. There are horrors like family members abandoning each other during famines to survive. But Barbara Demick’s achievement–basically turning the stories of her interviewees into a too-true novel–is astonishing. One of the great feats of journalism from the past ten years.

7. Runaway (Alice Munro). This year’s Nobel Prize went to a Canadian short-story writer whose tales create characters so richly and deeply alive that, after 20 pages, you feel like you’ve actually met them and been friends with them for years. Munro can accomplish in a short story what most writers struggle to accomplish in a 400-page novel, and although there’s a certain sameness to it, the most magical stories are so good you have to stop and take a few deep breaths afterwards, to give yourself time to think.

6. The Untraceable Percy Wren (Patricia Ladd). This joyous fantasy novel gives you a whirlwind tour of a world where immortals gossip and feud like high-schoolers, evil forces are bent on taking over, invisible portals enable those who see them to teleport (roughly) across the globe, and Chaos is personified as a cute rambunctious woman named Grace who just really likes causing trouble. Percy Wren falls straight into this crazy alternate world, and if you aren’t already aware of the peculiar workings of the mind of Patricia Ladd, you’ll want to fall in too, because I don’t know anybody with a bigger, wilder imagination. If you like novels where it turns out cuttlefish are a mispronunciation of cuddlefish, cars are named Trixie, immortals join a terrible boy band, and smashing a clock causes an irritated dandy gent to time-travel to you, you will go crazy over this.

5. Londoners (Craig Taylor). This is a series of nonfictional interviews that is simply brilliant. Craig Taylor sits down with hundreds of Londoners from all walks of life and transcribes their stories as if they are delivering great dramatic monologues. In his hands ordinary people become orators. We follow a night owl around the produce markets; we learn how to live by squatting in abandoned properties; we hear from Tube drivers and airline pilots and rebellious artists and bankers and witnesses to murders. We hear from the malcontents who grow to hate London, the immigrants, people who regret leaving, people who wish they could, people who couldn’t live without it. In these pages, London itself becomes one of the great characters in all literature.

Make no mistake: Londoners is a masterpiece. You need never have been there to be in awe of Taylor’s journalism, though it certainly helps. This book so inspired me that my current fiction project is indirectly based on it. You’ll see what I mean by that, eventually.

4. Life Itself (Roger Ebert). Ebert is one of the great prose stylists of our time, and memory brings out his best and most powerful writing. It would be both corny and accurate to describe this book as full of joy, laughter, sadness, wisdom, hard times, good times, regrets, loves. Roger Ebert lived a pretty interesting life, whether you care about movies or not, but it’s even more interesting in the telling, for few writers talk about themselves this candidly or vividly. Gradually you realize that the title is meant literally. The best autobiographies aren’t about their authors, but about, yes, life itself: about everything that it means to be alive. This is one of the best autobiographies.

3. Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin). For the first time, we have a repeat winner. Eugene Onegin was #3 on my list in 2010, and here it is again. This is one classic that (at least in James Falen’s translation) has barely aged a day. It’s lively, hilarious, heartbreaking; its narrator is a lively character, and, like with today’s best TV, you keep wanting to jump in and yell at the characters. Hardly a chapter goes by without blindingly great lines of verse, wise words that make you stop in your tracks, or jokes that can still throw a punch. I think I could read this book every year and never tire of it.

If you’re still not convinced: there’s a five-stanza digression where the narrator talks about his foot fetish!

2. Bleak House (Charles Dickens). Dickens’ masterpiece? It starts off with a page and a half of descriptive sentence fragments. But Dickens isn’t just showing off; he’s attacking the English legal system with some of his most savage social critique, and entangling us in a web of great characters, and doing all sorts of brilliant things. Like Eugene Onegin, this suffers from “classic” status because people think classics are musty and old and creaky and worshipful. Not so! These two works are livelier and more exuberant and, well, fun, than almost everything being written today. And they’re epics, too. Hurrah!

1. The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat (Edward Kelsey Moore). The only book published in 2013 on this list is also the winner. Huh.

Profundity doesn’t always mean morbidity, melancholia, moroseness, meditation, and murder. Joy, strength, friendship, and love are profound forces too. But they’re much harder to write about, because you have to avoid sentimentality, silliness, and superficiality, and you have to be realistic about the challenges. There are shelves of books where characters face their mortalities and despair; there are fewer where characters face their mortalities and rejoice. Happy endings are common, but deeply meaningful ones are not. Few novels manage to be uplifting without cheating, to be inspiring without manipulation. The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat is one of them.

This is a story about three black women who grow up together in a small town in Indiana. They are lifelong friends; together they face infidelity, fear, love, loss, and death. First-time novelist (and professional cellist) Edward Kelsey Moore makes the characters so vivid you can close your eyes and see their faces. There is romance: the book contains my favorite marriage proposal in any work of fiction, printed or filmed. There is humor: somebody starts seeing the ghost of Drunk Eleanor Roosevelt. There is tragedy. I wish I could tell you more.

It’s hard to avoid cliche so carefully. It’s hard to create a cast of characters who, even today, feel completely new. It’s hard to say something original and beautiful about friendship. Heck, it’s hard to say something original about the good people can do with their lives. It’s hard, too, to write a book which really does make you “laugh and cry.” The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat does all these things. It’s hard to describe the book except with one word: miraculous.

2 Comments

Filed under Art

2 responses to “Books of the Year

  1. I really like how your list is a good mix of fiction and non-fiction, classics and genre. I too often go on binges and then exhaust myself (“I’m going to read EVERY book by Charles Dickens in a row”). I also really like that “Hey Brian, will you proofread something for me?” has somehow turned into “Hey Brian, will you talk me up to the Internet at every opportunity?” I don’t know how that happened, but it’s great!

  2. Larry

    That’s quite an eclectic list. The best new work of fiction I read this past year was Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” which is the story of a young boy who comes into possession of a priceless 17th-century Dutch painting after a terrorist bombing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum kills his mother. (Don’t worry, there was no such bombing in real life and the painting is safe; in fact it was shown at the Frick Museum in NY these past few months.) I am also now reading Michael Dirda’s 2003 memoir of his boyhood, “An Open Book.” I knew Mike briefly when we were undergraduates at Oberlin, and I think his book will appeal to all those who value books, reading, girls, and for that matter classical music.

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